Oren Dorell, USA TODAY
Republican senators say they will defy President Obama and push for a bill to toughen sanctions against Iran despite White House objections that any new legislation should wait until after the current round of talks run their course.
The coming confrontation could impact whether Iran's nuclear program can be curtailed through talks that restarted this week in Geneva instead of military action.
Sen. Mark Kirk of Illinois, a junior member of the Senate banking committee that is considering the bill, said the end of talks in Geneva this week with no change in Iranian behavior means the Senate should move forward on toughening sanctions despite White House objections.
Kirk released a statement together with Sens. Lindsey Graham of South Carolina and Kelly Ayotte of New Hampshire responding to a report in Friday's New York Times that the Obama administration is considering easing sanctions on Iran by releasing Iran's frozen overseas cash.
"Now is a time to strengthen--not weaken--U.S. and international sanctions," the senators said. "The U.S. should not suspend new sanctions, nor consider releasing limited frozen assets, before Tehran suspends its nuclear enrichment activities."
The White House did not deny the Times report, but Bernadette Meehan, a spokeswoman for President Obama's National Security Council, said "Discussion of specific types of sanctions relief is premature and speculative."
Meehan said new sanctions should wait while talks show promise and that Congress should match its actions to the White House negotiating strategy.
"We believe it will be helpful to allow the ongoing diplomatic negotiations to move forward before we consider any new sanctions legislation," Meehan said. "We will continue our close consultation with the Congress, as we have in the past, so that any congressional action is aligned with our negotiating strategy as we move forward."
Senators are proposing to increase Iran sanctions, arguing that Iran's approach to talks this week are proof existing sanctions have worked and that a threat of more down the road would improve chances of success.
Sen. Mark Rubio said such a bill is necessary to prevent the administration from letting Iran achieve its goal of lifting sanctions that have crippled its economy while also retaining a nuclear program capable of someday producing a nuclear weapon.
"Iran is going into these negotiations with a very clear goal - to get these sanctions lifted without giving up anything substantial," Rubio, R-Fla., said in an interview with USA TODAY.
The proposed legislation is likely to be discussed in the Senate banking committee after the Senate reconvenes from its recess Oct. 28. It would target Iran's revenues, foreign currency reserves and Iran's currency, the rial, to "lock down the funds that Iran needs to forestall a severe economic and financial crisis, said Mark Dubowitz, executive director of the Foundation for Defense of Democracies, who is familiar with the Senate proposal.
The Senate bill would match a similar bill passed by the House in July. It is not likely to come to a Senate vote until after Iran is due to meet again with world powers in Geneva Nov. 7.
State Department officials characterized meetings on Tuesday and Wednesday between Iran and world powers as promising. Officials disclosed no details about what the Iranians have offered to do.
Iran says its nuclear program has peaceful aims, though it insists on its right to produce nuclear fuel, a process that can lead to weapons production. The United States and its ally Israel believe Iran is working to develop a nuclear weapon. Israel has pledged to take action if necessary to stop Iran from building a bomb, and President Obama has said the USA will do what's necessary to prevent Iran from obtaining nuclear weapons.
The United Nations' International Atomic Energy Agency has reported multiple violations by Iran of agreements it made to allow inspectors to access nuclear facilities. The IAEA has also reported evidence of secret nuclear facilities, Iranian work on missile systems capable of launching nuclear warheads, and experiments with nuclear detonators.
U.S. and international sanctions have targeted Iran's petroleum economy and its access to cash and world financial institutions, causing its leaders to fear economic collapse and to seek a compromise with the West.
Rubio said he and other senators would reject any agreement with Iran to suspend or cancel additional sanctions "unless they agree to abandon nuclear enrichment entirely."
The New York Times reported today(Friday) that administration officials are considering relaxing controls on Iranian cash reserves that have been frozen in other countries if Iran places limits on its nuclear program. The move would be a way to provide Iran with some relief without altering the international sanctions regime the USA has assembled over many years, and which would be difficult to rebuild once dismantled.
"Iran will have to agree to meaningful, transparent, and verifiable actions before we can seriously consider taking steps to ease sanctions," Meehan said.